Scouting the Nationals' Top International Signings Cristhian Vaquero, Armando Cruz

Scouting the Nats’ top international signings Vaquero, Cruz originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The baseball offseason may have been forced to a halt due the ongoing lockout, but one winter event still managed to go on without a hitch: the start of the international signing period.

Among the teams that made a splash were the Nationals, who inked 17-year-old Cuban outfielder Cristhian Vaquero to a team-record $4.925 million signing bonus. The deal came one year after Washington snagged another top international prospect in shortstop Armando Cruz, whose $3.9 million was tied for the Nationals’ highest international signing bonus ever awarded until Vaquero came along.

Between Vaquero and Cruz, the Nationals’ international pipeline has some high-profile talent making its way to D.C. Last week, Baseball America’s prospect reporter Ben Badler sat down with NBC Sports Washington to talk about state of the Nationals’ farm system and some of their biggest prospects. In a three-part series, we break down some of the biggest topics discussed during the interview.

Due to travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, Badler has yet to see either Vaquero or Cruz play in person. He has, however, had the five-tool Vaquero on his radar for years and watched film on him both at the plate and in the outfield. It was evident to Badler early on that he was going to be one of the more highly coveted players of his class.

“[Vaquero is] 6-foot-3, he’s strong but lean, athletic and he can really run,” Badler said. “He’s at least a plus-runner, he glides around in the outfield. He has a strong arm there, too. So I think it’s just the combination of size and athleticism and physical upside. Once he continues to fill out, you’ll see his power go up. I think there’s already probably some power in there but there’s just a lot of really exciting explosiveness and athleticism and physical upside there.”

Nationals Assistant GM of International Operations Johnny DiPuglia described Vaquero as a player “born a wide receiver at the University of Alabama” due to his wide skillset and strong physical profile. Badler expressed a similar sentiment. Vaquero is 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. Luther Burden, a Missouri commit ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 overall WR of the 2022 recruiting class, is listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds.

But enough of the football comparisons. Vaquero brings to the Nationals a five-tool skillset the team hasn’t seen in its player development system since Victor Robles was a consensus top-10 prospect in 2018. Although Robles’s shortcomings at the major-league level may not be encouraging, Vaquero has everything a scout looks for in a prospect: a repeatable swing, the frame for power potential, game-changing speed, natural instincts in the field, a strong arm and, according to DiPuglia, a good attitude.

As for Cruz, his upside lies more on the defensive side while his hitting is a work in progress. Cruz made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League last year, posting a .232/.292/.305 slash line with one home run, eight doubles, 11 stolen bases, 16 walks and 27 strikeouts in 48 games. He also recorded nine errors in the field, showing that he still has a lot to work on.

“Ever since [Cruz] was an amateur, it’s really been his defense, his glove, in particular his hands, that have stood out more than anything,” Badler said. “I think it’s more of a defensive-minded profile whereas I think Vaquero has more of a chance to hit toward the top or the middle of the lineup if everything clicks. So I think there’s still a lot of defensive ability with Cruz and defensive upside with him. He puts the bat to the ball but he’s gonna have to get stronger to be able to drive the ball with some more impact if he’s going to develop into an everyday guy. Because the raw defensive skill that he has, [Cruz] has a chance to be pretty exciting. But obviously, he has to perform better than what he showed last year.”

If there was ever a flashy defensive prospect, it’s Cruz. The Dominican infielder shows quick reaction time and already has a strong understanding of the fundamentals at shortstop. He’s a bit undersized at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, but he makes up for it with impressive range. His arm grades out about average right now in terms of strength and there’s room to grow there as he gets older.

However, if Cruz is going to be an everyday player, his bat will need to develop as well. The Nationals aren’t going to expect him to be a power hitter by any means, but his quick hands should give them hope that he can produce as a contact hitter. Cruz is heading into his age-18 season and will likely make the transition to the U.S. at some point in the spring.

The Nationals do boast other international prospects with high upside, including outfielder Yasel Antuna and right-handed pitcher Andry Lara — both of whom ranked among the Nationals’ top 10 prospects. Antuna has already been added to Washington’s 40-man roster while Lara will be 19 years old pitching in the lower levels of the minors this year.

As the Nationals continue their effort to rebuild their organization and restock their farm system, the expensive signings of Vaquero and Cruz loom large. It’s going to be a few years before either of them is ready for the majors, but both prospects have the potential to be stars on their current trajectory.

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